Translated by Barbara Haveland (Doubleday, 277pages, $27.95)
When Peter Hoeg’s novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow was released in 1993, it caused a sensation, garnering rave reviews and resid-
ing on best-seller lists for months. It deserved the acclaim. The third novel by Danish author Peter Hoeg—and the first to be translated into English—Smilla was a gripping thriller that took its intellectual, emotionally cool heroine on a mysterious journey from the wind and snow of Copenhagen to the glaciers off Greenland in
search of answers to a six-year-old boy’s death. In Hoeg’s latest novel, Borderliners, the setting is once again Copenhagen. But while snow was the motif that ran through Smilla, the new book is permeated with— and at times bogged down by—an inquiry into the nature of time.
The story begins in the early 1970s when the narrator, a young teenager named Peter, is in his 10th institution. Abandoned in infancy, Peter has been shunted from children’s homes and reform school to the Royal Orphanage, better known to its students as Crusty House “because of the crusts they had to make do with instead of proper bread.” After a teacher tries to rape Peter in a telephone booth, the boy is unaccountably transferred to Biehl’s Academy, an elite private school attended mostly by bright children from well-to-do families, but also by a few “borderliners”—marginal cases like Peter. He is so malnourished when he arrives that during his first year at Biehl’s he gains 3772 pounds and grows 10 inches.
Inside the oppressive academy, order rules. Teachers monitor the children’s every move, and punishment for such crimes as not keeping perfectly still during assembly often takes the form of beatings. Doors between floors are kept locked; children may not even go to the bathroom unaccompanied. During one class, a teacher asks a student to fetch something from a locker. In the locker is the teacher’s son, who has tried to cut out his tongue with a razor blade. When the pupil discovers this, she returns to her seat and vomits. “She did it all over the desk, where others might have tried to reach the sink or wastepaper basket,” writes Hoeg. “But she never got up without permission.”
Into Peter’s bleak existence come two other borderliners who inspire his first real feelings of tenderness. One is August, a sickly psychotic boy who has murdered his abusive parents and in whom Peter takes an almost fatherly interest. At one point, when August cannot get to sleep, he slips down to the school kitchen and inhales gas from the stove. Peter, who has followed him, carries the woozy boy back upstairs and puts him safely to bed. Grappling with the horror of what he has just witnessed, Peter tries to justify it. “Unaccountable pain overwhelms,” he says. “So one tries to explain it away by means of time. One had to say to oneself that it was because it was hard for him to fall asleep. That in itself was not disturbing; it was just a difficult time of the day for him. Time was the problem, one said to oneself.”
Peter’s other soul mate is the recently orphaned Katarina. In rare stolen moments alone, they tell each other the stories of their lives. Together, the two come to realize that the borderliners are part of some kind of school experiment involving time—one that ultimately has tragic consequences. “We were held down as tightly as anyone can be held down by a clock,” says Peter, alluding to the institution’s extremely rigid schedule. “So hard, in fact, that if your shell was not very thick, then you fell completely or partially to pieces.”
Hoeg moves his story back and forth between the narrator’s adolescence and the present as Peter, now a husband and father in his late 30s, tries to make sense of it all. The early period ends when Peter, at 15, is adopted by a family named Hoeg, which suggests that the novel is at least partly autobiographical (something which the book’s publisher denies). In both the early and presentday passages of the book, the young and the adult Peter are continually ruminating about the nature of time and timepieces. Time, says the older Peter in retrospect, “was at the root of everything. It screwed life down. Like some kind of tool.”
As with Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Hoeg has written Borderliners in such a way that the reader feels rivetted to the story yet removed from its horrors. The narrators of both books, like many abused or traumatized people, have adopted an attitude of detachment in order to protect themselves. For different reasons, both books are demanding to read, but the new novel delivers fewer rewards for the effort. Hoeg has obviously devoted himself to the subject of time: the adult Peter muses confidently about the theories of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, St. Augustine and Stephen Hawking, among others. But no matter how interesting they may be, the narrator’s ramblings often slow down the story, detracting from what is otherwise a chilling tale of an unfortunate boy’s trip through adolescence.
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